• Photo of early morning clouds hanging low in the valley with mountains of the Continental Divide stretched out above. NPS Photo/Schonlau

    Rocky Mountain

    National Park Colorado



Bull Elk

NPS Photo

North American elk, or wapiti, were once plentiful in the Rocky Mountain National Park area. As Euro- Americans settled the Estes Valley, they hunted elk intensively sending much of the meat to market in Denver. By 1890 few, if any, elk remained.

In 1913 and 1914, before the establishment of the park, the Estes Valley Improvement Association and United States Forest Service transplanted 49 elk from Yellowstone National Park to this area. Around the same time, an all-out effort began to eliminate predators - including the gray wolf and the grizzly bear. The resulting decrease in predators probably hastened the recovery of Rocky's elk population.

Today, Elk number about 1 million in North America. Currently, the Park's elk population fluctuates between 600 and 800 in the winter.

Accelerating development along the park boundary is diminishing open space and blocking traditional migration routes, thus decreasing winter forage and habitat.


Cow and calf

NPS Photo

The Mating Season

As Autumn approaches, elk descend from the high country to montane meadows for the annual breeding season. Within the gathering herds, the larger antlered males, weighing up to 1100 pounds (495 kg) and standing five feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder, move nervously among the bands of smaller females.

In this season of excitement, bull elk compete with one another for the right to breed with a herd of females. Prime bulls, eight to nine years old, stand the best chance of mating. While competition is high among bulls it includes little fighting, since fighting causes injury and depletes energy. Instead, mature bulls compete for cows by displaying their antlers, necks and bodies. They emit strong, musky odors and bugle. With little rest or food during the mating season, bulls enter the winter highly susceptible to the hardships of the coming months.

Cow elk, weighing up to 600 pounds (270 kg), carry the new life for 250 days through the rigors of winter and early spring. In late May or June, a lightly spotted calf of 30 pounds is born. Nursing and foraging through the rich seasons of summer and fall, the calves may reach 250 (115 kg) pounds by late autumn.


Bulls grazing by the creek.

NPS Photo

The Bugle

Bull elk signal the season of mating with a crescendo of deep, resonant tones that rise rapidly to a high-pitched squeal before dropping to a series of grunts. It is this call, or bugle, that gives rise to the term "rut" for the mating season. Rut is derived from the Latin word meaning roar.

The eerie call, echoing through the autumn nights, serves to intimidate rival males and may act as a physical release for tensions of the season. Cows and younger bulls may also bugle, but they are unable to match the strength or range of the older bulls' calls.

Photo Elk gnawed aspen trees

Elk gnaw on aspen bark.

NPS Photo

Elk Viewing And Protection

During autumn, elk congregate in the Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows. Watch for elk along the edges of clearings early in the morning or in the evening. Bugling is more often heard at dawn and dusk.

To minimize disturbance to the animals and to ensure a pleasant experience for all visitors, please observe these viewing guidelines:

  • Turn off car lights and engine immediately. Shut car doors quietly and keep conversations to a minimum.
  • Observe and photograph from a distance that is comfortable to the elk. If the elk move away or if their attention is diverted, you are too close.
  • Stay by the roadside while in Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, Upper Beaver Meadows and the Kawuneeche Valley. Travel is restricted to roadways and designated trails. Be aware of posted area closures.

It is illegal to use artificial lights or calls to view or attract wildlife.

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